THE shorter the time between the catching and eating of a fish, the better the meal. Everyone knows that.

If there was a doubt, it was dispelled a few years ago at the first and last annual Fletcher's Boathouse spring perch fry. On a rainy, cold April morning a band of bedraggled perch-jerkers gathered over a cold hibachi and wondered who brought the matches.

The event was planned for weeks but the initial stages ran smoothly anyway, which is to say the perch-jerkers arrived at dawn and succeeded in jerking a mess of perch from the swollen waters of the Potomac by breakfast time. Well they should. About half the participants had Fletcher as a last name, and Fletchers know the Potomac.

So there were white perch, at least 100, all freshly caught, scaled and gutted, and the roe of the squaws set aside for a separate treat.

Dicky Tehaan was in charge of the iron skillet. He started breading and frying once the fire was hot and everyone commenced to wait.

Billy Collins, who eats crisp fried perch tails potato chip-style, asked around if anyone planned on not eating his tails. Tehaan stirred up the fish and the tails and the roe and the oil and a rich odor wafted around and drove the fishermen hungry.

Then the perch were ready, the skin crackling brown and the meat steamy inside.

It was an hour of taste and smell and rich warmth and camaraderie that lingers still. Let's just say it was about as good a time as a fellow could expect, eating standing up outdoors in a cold rain.

The main reason was the perch, which is one fine eating fish and vastly underrated by your average sophisticated Washingtonian.

White perch swarm up the Potomac and other rivers of the Chesapeake every spring to spawn. They arrive in such numbers in April and early May that they can be caught by anyone, even a grown-up if he uses bloodworms and gets his bait down to the bottom. The meat of these fish is white, flaky, firm and sweet as a nut.

Everybody around Washington loves rockfish, which costs a fortune if you buy it and is almost impossible to catch unless you're a Fletcher. White perch is first cousin to rockfish but costs much less, or you can catch it yourself by the basketful even if your name is McNasby.

I believe perch is actually a better-tasting fish than rock, but it's harder to eat because while rockfish grow to giant size, most white perch you buy are 10 to 12 inches long, and the ones you catch in the Potomac are generally smaller than that.

With little fish you have to deal with bones. Sophisticated Washingtonians who have never had to nibble around fish bones are deathly afraid of being turned upside-down or Heimlich-maneuvered because it can slow down the party talk.

At Fletcher's perch fry the guests were river rats who knew exactly where the bones were. They ate the little perch like corn on the cob.

For sophisticated parties the proper thing is to fillet the perch into boneless, skinless slabs that come out the size of two fingers, or have someone fillet them. To prepare, dip the fillets in an egg-milk mix, bread lightly in a half-cornmeal-half-flour mix with a little salt and fry in a hot skillet. This is also the proper way to cook whole perch.

Squeeze a little fresh lemon on to enhance the flavor. Or you can wreck perch with some smart-aleck French sauce. Just remember, fish is easy to overcook but IT IS VERY HARD TO UNDERCOOK FISH!

Joe Fletcher flatly refused this year, as he does every year, to predict the start of the spring Potomac perch run. "You're asking me to stick my neck out," he said suspiciously. The earliest he ever remembers it starting was March 7 or 8. Joe said the run probably would start this year on March 25. But don't ask him for any predictions.

Meantime, Chesapeake commercial netters are already catching plenty of nice white perch that you can buy at fish markets. It's never as fresh as do-it-yourself, but you can be reasonably confident at this time of year that the white perch you buy is local fish.

Or you could stop down at Fletcher's some rainy April morning and see if they're having the first and last annual Fletcher's Boathouse spring perch fry again. Everyone should experience it. Once